Statement by the Representative on Internal Displacement in Colombia

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

December 5, 2002

This statement is also available in Spanish.

Permit me to express my profound appreciation to Carlos Huertas, formerly of the Support Group for Displaced People Organizations (GAD) and Francisco Galindo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for organizing this important event. I am also grateful to you all the presenters for your continued efforts to raise the visibility of the plight of Colombia’s internally displaced and for your utilization of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a tool in addressing concerns related to internally displaced persons. It is my hope that you will familiarize yourselves with the Handbook for Applying the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and find innovative ways to utilize it in your work.

As you know, the Principles are the first international standards for internally displaced persons. Prepared at the request of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly and presented by me as the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons to the Commission in 1998, they set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments and other controlling actors toward these populations. The Principles cover all phases of displacement: protection from arbitrary displacement, protection and assistance during displacement and during return or resettlement and reintegration. The Handbook, which was developed to implement the Principles in the field, was first published in English in 1999 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement. It provides practical guidance to field staff on the actual steps they can take on behalf of displaced persons to carry out the Principles.

In addition to Spanish, the Handbook has been translated into other languages and is being utilized around the world to promote the rights of the internally displaced. In Indonesia, for example the translation of the Handbook into Bahasa Indonesia stimulated the development of an outreach campaign by international and local NGOs. One outcome of this effort was the publication of a cartoon version of the Principles that will be widely circulated in conflict affected areas to promote the rights of the displaced. A Portuguese translation of the Handbook was used by UN personnel to train the displaced communities in Angola. One of the Angolan women trained at Salga Camp, Luanda Province told the UN: “I knew that we had rights, just like any other person. Now that I know exactly what they are, it is my responsibility to ensure that my community understands them too. I am a widow, a mother of four. I never went to school. I am thankful for this opportunity to learn and teach about our rights. If we know about the Guiding Principles and the [Angolan] Norms [on Resettlement], we know our lives can improve.”

I very much hope that the Spanish edition will further support the work of international and national organizations working on behalf of the displaced in Colombia and will reinforce efforts of displaced communities themselves. The Handbook should prove useful for training field staff that work directly with internally displaced persons. Additional copies are available from my office. Please contact Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli at [email protected]

Since my last visit to your country in 1999, I am pleased to note that the Government has taken a number of steps to further develop national legal and institutional frameworks for addressing the problem of internal displacement. I am encouraged, for example, by the Government’s efforts to strengthen the implementation of existing legislation, specifically with Presidential Directive No. 6 (2001), which supports the Constitutional Court’s decision T-327 (March 2001) that upheld the Guiding Principles and stressed the need for Government officials to receive training in the Principles. It should also be noted that a prior Constitutional Court decision SU-1150 (August 2000) stated that the Guiding Principles should be utilized in the interpretation of existing legislation for the internally displaced and as the standard for any new legislation on displacement.

While these developments are noteworthy, the main issues and recommendations made in my 2000 report to the UN Commission on Human Rights and reiterated in my September 2002 statement to the International Seminar on Displacement: Implications and Challenges for Governance, Democracy and Peace organized by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) remain valid. There continues to be a gap between the official policies and standards set forth in the Guiding Principles and the reality faced by most of the country’s displaced. Early warning indicators have failed to prevent and protect persons from displacement. The number of internally displaced persons only continues to rise, with significant new displacement occurring on a regular basis. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in the first six months of this year, some 900 to 1,000 people became internally displaced each day. Recognizing that this is a difficult and complex situation, it is my hope that the Government will make every effort to protect persons from being arbitrarily displaced and that it will undertake more efforts to mitigate the consequences of displacement.

On the positive side, I am pleased with the agreement between the Colombian Registrar and UNHCR which provides for mobile documentation units that frequent settlements inhabited by the internally displaced so as to enable them to complete applications for personal identity documents. This effort reduces the time it takes to obtain identity documents to two months rather than the usual six to eight months. Many displaced will be able to register more quickly and access needed basic services and enhance their protection. This action, among others, signals an improvement in efforts to increase the number of registered internally displaced persons.

But it also must be noted that there continue to be many people who are unregistered and in need of basic assistance. Further, it should be emphasized that emergency assistance, when an internally displaced person is able to access it, is not sufficient for persons who may remain displaced for years. It is also important that long-term assistance be linked to short-term assistance so that internally displaced persons can cope until their social and economic situation is stabilized.

The physical security of displaced populations continues to be a major concern. In addition to facing discrimination and stigmatization, the displaced often live in fear in the places where they have sought refuge. Their living conditions are often sub-standard and many have limited access to essential services of food and medicine, adequate shelter, income generating activities, employment and education. Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons, already marginalized sectors of the population, face additional obstacles once displaced. Sadly, efforts to protect human rights defenders have not prevented leaders of displaced persons organizations and those who work on their behalf from facing threats, attacks, kidnappings and killings. The Government should make every effort to ensure that the internally displaced and the persons working on behalf of the displaced are better protected.

The Government of Colombia faces enormous challenges in dealing with the problem of internal displacement. It is my hope that it will build upon the normative and institutional frameworks that already exist, and ensure that programs to assist the internally displaced receive adequate funding so that they can be properly implemented. It should then reinforce its own efforts by partnering with international organizations, non-governmental organizations and the leaders of the displaced to address the existing gaps. While the greater involvement and presence of international organizations should be encouraged, greater national responsibility must also be demonstrated.

By making the issue of internal displacement a high national priority, the Government can give it the visibility and attention it currently lacks. I am encouraged by President Alvaro Uribe’s October statement to the Episcopal Conference and Archdiocese of Bogota in which he said that efforts must be made to stop further displacement and pointed out that internal displacement should be one of the priorities of social investment. As I recommended in my earlier statements, the Uribe Administration in office since August should consider the designation of a senior level focal point within the Government. An official at this level could work with all concerned actors to try to ensure that the guarantees provided for in existing normative and institutional frameworks are fully implemented and that the gaps in the response system for the displaced are addressed.

In closing, I strongly encourage all of you to work together so that concerted efforts are taken to provide protection against on going displacement, to guarantee the physical security of the large number of already uprooted in Colombia, and to intensify measures to find a peaceful solution to end the conflict that is causing this displacement. As for returns of displaced persons, I would emphasize that they must be voluntary, with safety and sustainability assured, in accordance with the Guiding Principles. It is my hope that the Handbook will prove of assistance in improving the national and international response to the crisis of internal displacement found in Colombia.